Sarah Forbes Bonetta

In 1850, anti-slavery advocate Captain Frederick Forbes of the HMS Bonetta, visited King Gezo of Dahomia, West Africa. During his visit, Forbes saw that a young girl, aged about eight years old, was to be ritually murdered in a ceremony called ‘the watering of the graves’. Forbes ascertained that the girl was a princess from a neighbouring tribe and that her parents had been massacred in a Dahomian attack at Egbado, during the Okeadon war. He later wrote, ‘It is usual to reserve the best born for the high behest of royalty and the immolation on the tombs of the diseased nobility. For one of these ends she has been detained at court for two years, proving, by her not having been sold to slave dealers, that she was of good family’.

At Forbes’ behest, King Gezo agreed to give the girl to Queen Victoria, as a ‘gift’: he explained that ‘She would be a present from the King of the blacks to the Queen of the Whites’. For a year, Sarah (sometimes ‘Sara’) Forbes Bonetta — as she was subsequently christened — lived with Forbes and his wife; she was presented to the Royal Family in November 1850 and her education and upkeep were paid for by Queen Victoria.

Both the monarch and her foster father were impressed with their young charge, of whom Forbes wrote, ‘She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and has a great talent for music. She has won the affections, but with few exceptions, of all who have known her. She is far in advance of any white child of her age, in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection’.

In 1851, Sarah returned to Sierra Leone, but returned to England in 1855 and lived with the Rev. James Schoen and his family in Gillingham. She was invited to the royal wedding of Princess Victoria and Prince Frederick William of Prussia (the future Kaiser and father of Kaiser Wilhelm II) in January 1858.

During her stay in Sierra Leone, she had come to the attention of James Pinson Labulo Davies, a widowed former slave who, after being educated in Sierra Leone and coming under the patronage of the Royal Navy, became a prosperous merchant in Lagos. After his first wife’s death, he wrote to Sarah, proposing marriage; he was then living at 9 Victoria Rd.

After a series of discussions between the Palace and Mrs Schoen, it was decided in spring 1862 that Sarah should accept the proposal and, in preparation for her marriage, be sent to live with a Mr and Mrs Welsh in Brighton. Sarah was unhappy to leave her adoptive family and friends in Kent; she knew no-one in Brighton and felt increasingly isolated. She described, the Welsh’s home, 17 Clifton Hill, as a ‘desolate little pigsty’.

On August 16 1862, she and Davies were married at St Nicholas’s Church. According to the Brighton Gazette, the guests included ‘white ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with white gentlemen until all the space was filled. The bridesmaids [Davies’s sisters] were 16 in number’. Captain Forbes’s brother gave her away and the service was conducted by the Lord Bishop of Sierra Leone.

The party had a wedding breakfast at West Hill Lodge, Montpelier Rd, before the bride and groom left for London, en route to Sierra Leone. They had three children; the eldest child, Victoria, became the Queen’s goddaughter, of whom she was particularly fond. When she passed her music examination, the teachers and children were granted a day’s holiday and often visited the Queen at Windsor Castle.

It was during one of these visits, in August 1880, that news came from abroad: the Queen wrote ‘Saw poor Victoria Davis, my black godchild, who learnt this morning of the death of her dear mother. The poor child was dreadfully upset & distressed…her father has failed in business, which aggravated her poor mother’s illness’. Sarah had died at the age of 37 in Madeira 1880, of tuberculosis. She had asked to be buried at sea, like her rescuer Captain Forbes; instead, she was buried in Funchal, Madeira.

Skeletons in the church

The Brighthelm United Reformed Church and Community Centre backs onto North Rd, and is adorned with a sculpture by John Skelton, depicting the loaves and fishes story. Built as a new home for the Central Free Church, it incorporates the former Hanover Chapel, which was built in 1825 as an Independent chapel for the Revd M Edwards, and then used by the Presbyterian Church from 1844 until 1972, when it combined with the Union Church. The chapel was then used as a Greek church until 1978, and the church hall in North Rd became a resource centre; it was gutted by fire in 1980. The southern facade of the Chapel, with twin porches, Tuscan columns and giant pilasters, has been preserved and restored.

In 1845, Queen’s Rd was constructed over the western edge of the Hanover Chapel’s burial ground, but the cemetery’s boundary wall and railing remain on the western side of Queen’s Road as a raised pavement. The churchyard became the corporation’s responsibility following the 1884 Brighton Improvement Act; it was laid out as a public garden, the Queen’s Rd Rest Garden, in 1949 when the gravestones were removed to line the perimeter walls.

In 1989, the churchyard was remodelled with access from Queen’s Rd. An obelisk monument in the garden has a very faint inscription to Dr Struve of the Royal Spa in Queen’s Park.

On August 15 1982, The Argus published a story, ‘Mystery of 500 bodies’, which revealed that a crypt containing hundreds of crumbling coffins and bones had been discovered underneath the remains of the resource centre when the Brighthelm Centre was being built. The chambers were first discovered on December 15 1981, when the roof of one of the chambers fell in. The subsequent excavation revealed many chambers, containing coffins of different types and from different eras – those commemorated with stone plaques were in fairly good condition, due to being lined with lead, and had been placed on separate shelves within chambers or in family groups within the chambers. The earlier, wooden coffins had mostly crumbled to pieces and there were no plaques or other memorials to indicate whose remains they had contained.

The discovery of the remains were kept largely secret from the public – apart from an advert in the local paper, asking for any surviving relatives to come forward and reclaim the remains, which yielded no replies. The excavation of the graves was carried out from April 1 to July 28 1982, and the remains were subsequently re-interred in a mass grave at Lawn Memorial Park, Warren Rd, Woodingdean.

Records were made of all the identified remains and kept on file, along with maps and photographs made by the Brighton Borough Surveyor, by the staff at Woodvale Lodge. It was believed the unidentified remains found amongst the crumbled wooden coffins may have been those of people who died as the result of some common illness, and probably dated back to the late 1700s.

At that time, scarlet fever was a serious health problem for adults and children throughout England. Later burials, from the 1820s onwards, included the family of William Wigney, a linen-draper; Harriet Stevens of North St; Stephen, Ann and Polly Ayling of Sussex St; Charlotte George, 11 Richmond Place; John Samuel Shepheard Spyring, 3 Western Place; Thomas Judson, Craven Cottage, Queens Road and Mary Rogers, 1 Upper Rock Gardens. Designed by John Wells-Thorpe (whose other designs included the new Hove Town Hall and St Patrick’s Church, Woodingdean), the Brighthelm Centre was opened on October 10 1987.